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A New Treatment for a Classic
Ballet West Adds Some New Spirit to 'Romeo and Juliet'
By Karen Anne Webb

Dance Review:
'Romeo and Juliet'
Val A. Browning Center for the Performing Arts (Weber State University)
Feb. 24 and 25, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets cost $14 to $35. No late seating
Buy tickets through the Ogden Symphony Ballet Association at (801) 399-9214 or

In one sense, when you work with a programmed score like Prokofiev’s "Romeo and Juliet," you only have so much latitude. There is a musical moment for Mercutio to say “A plague on both your houses;” there is music wherein Juliet has to relate to the sleep potion; the balcony and street scenes are written into the score. So it can be a challenge for a choreographer to handle the production in a way that distinguishes it from all the other Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliets" that are out there.

And Ballet West artistic director Jonas Kåge has done just that with his new production. While one can see the influences of productions in which Kåge himself danced (principally MacMillan’s and Cranko’s), this is a production that Ballet West can very much call its own.

Getting a look at all three casts allowed me to see not only the differences in presentation and character but some of the subtleties that distinguish this production from the rest. The subtleties are just that: things you may not pick up on the first try, especially if you’re looking for pyrotechnics. It’s a little like seeing Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun” if you’re a neophyte who is easily impressed with tricks. When I first saw it back before the earth cooled, I wondered what the fuss was about (Kåge himself told me once that, as a young dancer, even he wanted to do the fancy roles and didn’t get why this is considered a masterpiece). Later, when you appreciate art as either performer or spectator, you get it.

So it is with this "Romeo and Juliet." The obvious fun, unique stuff includes the very visible sbandieratori, who toss and juggle their flags in the market square. But there are also some neat images that make you think. Juliet’s final pose in the balcony scene, for instance, mirrors her final pose in the tomb. Rather than having a statue of the Blessed Virgin in her room, she has a statue of an angel. This seemed a little out of period initially, and yet, when Juliet prays before the statue before she drinks the potion, the angel presages death (and so becomes the angel of death). The production is filled with portentous imagery like this.

Likewise, there are subtleties to Kåge’s use of the music. He finds moments for dance steps where the music doesn’t necessarily suggest them. Where other choreographers sometimes go nuts with tricks and bravura (the balcony scene comes to mind), he understates the steps and lets the music and the drama inherent in it speak for themselves. As he took an ensemble approach to the drama—Romeo and Juliet are, of course, important, but Kåge gives far more depth to Tybalt, Mercutio, Lady Capulet, and even Benvolio—one might say he took an ensemble approach to the music and choreography. It’s not that the balcony and “afterglow” scenes diminish in importance; it’s that he gives more weight to everything else. Even without Jesse Ryan Harward’s delightful delivery of bits of the text, one would “hear” Shakespeare very clearly in a lot of the movement.

The ballet itself is a choreographic tour de force. Kåge explores a myriad styles of dance, all suggested by the score, from the folk-y quality of the street scenes to the Limon-ish stylings of Lady Capulet’s dance of mourning for Tybalt. The pas de deux work for Juliet with both her suitor Paris and with Romeo include both unusual supports and direction changes; corners are rounded rather than acute; the flow is more continuous than accented.

Within the limits dictated by the choreography, Kåge allowed his dancers to run with their characters, so the three casts presented three very different views of the main dramatis personae. Poster children Christopher Ruud and Peggy Dolkas (in her first big dramatic role) brought to the roles of Romeo and Juliet a sense of ardent abandon. Seth Olson captured love in its first innocent bloom and seemed to behold in his Juliet, Michiyo Hayashi, the sort of vision of perfect womanhood for which Don Quixote sought so long in vain.

Ruud is a true craftsman when it comes to creating a character: his Romeo was passionate and multi-layered. Belying his recent ankle surgery, his jumps were clean and soaring. He and Dolkas projected a sense of beautiful rapport unusual in a new partnership. This was a remarkable debut for Dolkas, who seemed as immersed in the part as Ruud himself. Her line is absolutely stunning, her feet strong and supple. She has that ability I always admired in Maggie Wright to dissociate the top and bottom halves of her body so the torso and arms stay fluid while the hips and legs perform miracles of muscular finesse. This and Ruud’s superb partnering contributed to that sense of rapture.

Conversely, with Olson and Hayashi, I had more of a sense of them dancing the text. The discussion in the “afterglow” scene about whether it is the nightingale or the “lark, herald of morn” they are hearing was especially well-defined. OK, I’m biased: when these two dance together, they can do no wrong.

Dolkas and Hayashi, the two smaller Juliets, handled their child Juliet in a similar way: innocent and sweet. Enter the statuesque Christiana Bennett as Juliet #3 (hooray, a tall Juliet!), who did not make the mistake of trying to act tiny. Her pre-Romeo Juliet is an adolescent not yet comfortable with the changes her body is undergoing. She is tomboyish and even a little gawky, a bit like the Cowgirl in “Rodeo.”

Her at-the-ball Juliet, too, had a different twist. When she and Romeo (Hua Zhuang), meet, it is with the sense of recognition of old souls who nevertheless take a moment to realize that they are staring destiny in the face. As they confront their inevitable separation, Bennett brings to her character a sense of true desperation. Where Dolkas and Ruud communicated abandon and Olson and Hayashi a sense of effortlessness in both partnering and solo work, Bennett and Zhuang gave us a sense of flowing and being in unison with the music.

Other standouts in that particular cast included Kate Crews as Lady Capulet, who made the most of both her relationship with Tybalt and the earthy demands of the “mourning” variation, and Kira Smith as Rosaline, who reveled in Romeo’s attentions and made it clear that she is his heartthrob at the beginning of the play. (Many of the Capulet women, including Crews and Dolkas as well as Annie Breneman and Jennifer Robinson, perform double duty as the town harlots, roles they carry off with enjoyable panache.)

Kåge paid a good bit of attention to both Mercutio and Tybalt. Mercutio gets a death scene that bears a resemblance to the mad scene from Giselle, and Kåge creates such a sense that the townspeople are familiar with his antics that he has them applaud as Mercutio breathes his last, thinking that he is, once again, clowning. Jeff Herbig clowned very delightfully with the role, as you might expect. The surprise was Zhuang, who danced the role as if he were chaos incarnate and more an implacable force of nature than a man.

Tybalt is not intentionally the villain in Kåge’s book. Still, Ruud played him with a sense of brooding passion and Michael Bearden with a sense of arrogant malevolence. Olson’s Tybalt, like his Jean in “Miss Julie,” was the most sympathetic of the three. Bearden, who also dances as Benvolio, is beginning to bring a fine sense of dramatic weight to his stage work, and he’s learned to energize the entire long length of his body.

Of the smaller parts, Bruce Caldwell and Peter Christie generated an immediate sense of trust as Friar Laurence (this was the first time I didn’t expect the character to break into “To Each His Dulcinea). Megan Furse (née Searfoss) as a corps member who inadvertently ends up playing “crack the whip” drew the eye with polish and a nice sense of comedic timing. And it was fun to see alum Mary Ann Battle (née Lind) onstage once again as Juliet’s nurse.

I didn’t catch Bennett and Zhuang till the final performance. Whether it was this particular cast or the maturation of experience, that performance had the most vibrant sense about the staging: the Capulets and Montagues had overcome the initial caution that characterized the sword fights earlier in the week; the sbandieratori tossed their flags around with more verve. It was a great apotheosis to a fine premiere and bodes well for this week’s Ogden premiere.

"Romeo and Juliet" continues at the Val A. Browning Center for the Performing Arts on the Weber State University campus February 24-25 at 7:30 p.m. (Note: there is no late seating for this production.) Tickets through the Ogden Symphony Ballet Association at (801) 3999214 or


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